East Tampa residents craft action plan for the future

East Tampa residents will tell anyone who asks that they live in a historic community with great potential.

They are looking to the new 5-year East Tampa Strategic Action Plan to move their neighborhoods into the next phase of redevelopment and beyond. A draft plan is under review in preparation for a final report that will arrive in May.

Work on the draft plan kicked off in December 2020 amid the challenges of a COVID-19 pandemic and limited in-person contacts. But it began to take shape after 12 walking tours where residents got their chance to talk about quality-of-life issues that define their daily lives. Block by block they told the history of their neighborhoods, the good and the bad. And they drilled into what they believe will restore their homes, their streets, their schools, and their businesses, into vibrant, livable communities. 

The tours were eye-opening to planning consultants charged with crafting the East Tampa Strategic Action Plan.

“The most powerful thing that was impressed on us as we walked and talked with East Tampa residents was that the plan needed to speak to the residents of East Tampa and it needed to speak to housing,” says Pete Sechler, VP of GAI Community Solutions Group. “Life begins at your front door … and with the roof over your house.”

Sechler’s company is under contract to work with residents to craft the completed action plan.

The goal is to provide a framework and a vision that builds on nearly a decade of tax dollars reinvested into the East Tampa Community Redevelopment Area. The East Tampa CRA is the largest special tax district in the city -- larger than all the city’s CRAs combined. A portion of East Tampa’s property tax revenues are allocated each year for community-based projects.

In a series of public workshops, consultants are collecting public comments and suggestions prior to completing the action plan. The most recent workshop drew about 20 residents to the Cyrus Greene Community Center for a presentation by GAI Community Solutions Group.

The initial presentation of the draft plan happened in September with favorable, and often excited responses, says Sechler.

A list of 10 “community themes” within the plan will guide future decisions on how to put the plan into action. 

Those themes include residential investment in housing; neighborhood beautification; health and safety; livable streets and better transportation options; infrastructure and stormwater management; community commercial services; education, employment and jobs; parks and recreation; marketing and promotion; and leadership.

Recognizing a distinct sense of place

Artist renderings for individual neighborhoods including Jackson Heights, College Hill/Belmont Heights, Rainbow Heights, Grant Park, Northview Hills, Eastern Heights and V.M. Ybor illustrate visions of East Tampa’s potential to create a distinct sense of place.

A large stormwater drainage pond on 26th Avenue, for example, could be converted into an environmental park where residents can enjoy recreational activities. Sechler says similar ponds are found throughout East Tampa that can be repurposed to ease flooding and beautify neighborhoods.

The ponds are both an opportunity and a reminder of how often East Tampa suffered from environmental inequity, says Sechler. They were built to ease flooding, he added, but are an aesthetic blight on the community. No other community has as many stormwater ponds.

The East Tampa CRA previously remade three such ponds, notably one on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, near Cyrus Greene. It provides a boardwalk, exercise stations and a scenic resting place for residents.

Sechler says the final plan will include a list of all stormwater ponds in East Tampa for potential beautification and recreational purposes.

Erwin Technical College at Hillsborough Avenue and 22nd Street could “refresh” its education building with co-working spaces. Workforce housing or a business class hotel could be built.

Borrell Park on Nebraska Avenue could be upgraded and enhanced with Ybor and Barrio brick details. Townhomes and restoration of older properties could bring new residents and jobs to the area, which confronts daily the problem of homeless people.

A business incubator hub could locate on 22nd Street. An events hub for East Tampa residents, and visitors, could emerge also on this major East Tampa thoroughfare.

An industrial zone area around Highland Pines and Grant Park could spark business and jobs growth. Sechler says industrial areas are often viewed negatively. But they are, in fact, an asset and could be a major driver in East Tampa’s revitalization.

Though the possibilities for East Tampa are in the action plan, some at the workshop wanted more specifics on how to reach its goals.

“How is that going to take place? You need to put in details on how that is going to happen,” says Alison Hewitt, chair of the economic development committee of the East Tampa Community Revitalization Partnership. “This plan is a wish list.”

She and others also expressed concerns the plan needed to be clearer that East Tampa residents would decide their future, not the city or developers.

“We want to be in charge of our own destiny,” Hewitt says.

The partnership along with the East Tampa Community Advisory Committee works with the community and city officials to make decisions on the CRA’s redevelopment strategies.

Hewitt asked that the plan include steps and timelines that can guide East Tampa residents, and its committees, on what to expect. She cited the 2009 strategic plan, which included such information as well as incentives toward reaching goals.

Sechler says the plan could make some adjustments to address the concerns raised at the workshop. “You’re looking for the how-to,” he says.

Jeffery Johnson, who serves on the East Tampa Community Advisory Committee, agreed that some “action steps” should be in the plan. He also expressed concerns about how to reach out to younger generations, especially millennials, who are seeking to close a generational wealth gap. “How do we get engaged and how do we feel a part of that,” he asks. “How do you accomplish that? Give us the steps.”

Sechler says a business recruitment strategy is needed but that would require a “separate assignment” beyond the action plan.

Looking for basic stuff

Mona Judge, a long-time East Tampa resident, wants to see that East Tampa is getting what every other neighborhood expects.

“I want a coffee shop. I want a restaurant. I want a flower shop,” she says. “I want basic stuff.”

But for East Tampa now, even the basic of a grocery store is elusive.

Sechler says residents live in a food desert, having to drive long distances to shop at grocery stores, such as Publix or Winn-Dixie.

Judge recalled a past when East Tampa residents had a Winn-Dixie, and other businesses that served the community. “We had everything,” she says. “We know that it’s valuable.”

She isn’t sure how neighborhoods declined, except that younger generations drifted away.

The history of East Tampa’s historically Black neighborhood, as the plan acknowledges, is one of disenfranchisement, political neglect, and infrastructure that is aging, insufficient, or in disrepair. 

Urban renewal and highway construction in the 1960s carved up East Tampa, isolating it from downtown Tampa, dislocating it from Tampa’s core.

The city created the CRA in the early 2000s to revitalize the community.

But the collapse of the real estate market in 2008 dried up the revenue available for redevelopment in East Tampa, which suffered from home foreclosures. The 2009 action plan went from anticipating $4 million to $5 million a year to almost nothing.

Prior to the market debacle, the CRA saw several accomplishments including a redesigned 40th Street; a police headquarters and road improvements on 22nd Street; an environmental detective program to combat illegal dumping; three redesigned stormwater ponds; commercial development on Hillsborough Avenue including a Fifth/Third Bank branch; and a Walmart store on Hillsborough.

Revenues are on the rise, says Sechler, and the 2022 budget projects about $7.8 million will be available.

One important piece of the action plan will be developing marketing programs to promote East Tampa, says Sechler of GAI Consultants.

“There are many moments of success in East Tampa,” he says. “We need the outside world to appreciate the culture, history, and accomplishments of East Tampa. We saw those things as we walked around.”

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Read more articles by Kathy Steele.

Kathy Steele is a freelance writer who lives in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. She previously covered Tampa neighborhoods for more than 15 years as a reporter for The Tampa Tribune. She grew up in Georgia but headed north to earn a BA degree from Adelphi University in Garden City, NY. She backpacked through Europe before attending the University of Iowa's Creative Writers' Workshop for two years. She has a journalism degree from Georgia College. She likes writing, history, and movies.